by Wendy Xin, English
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013
The Problem: Most Reading and Composition instructors in my field face the decision to prioritize either the practice of fundamental writing and research skills or the more particularized literary analysis component of close reading. The task of reconciling these two ambitions — rendering specialized disciplinary tools portable enough for an academically diverse set of students — is a difficult one, a pedagogical hurdle over which many humanities GSIs have had to leap. The ideal solution seemed to call for the inhabitation of a formidable paradox: increasing students’ ease at generating clear, content-based arguments while simultaneously developing their ability to parse through the mercurial formal qualities that make up fictional narrative. But how, I wondered, might one instill an understanding of composition useful to engineering, political science, history, biology, literature, and math majors alike, when the nature of assigned readings across disciplines varied so widely? And how would the class find pleasure in engaging metacritically with the concept of narrative at 8 a.m., a time when most of us aren’t even used to experiencing narrative?
Teaching Strategy: Because many of my students anticipate majoring in the sciences rather than the humanities, I chose to have them conceive of narrative by plotting “plot” itself on a two-dimensional plane. To put a mathematical inflection on the abstract notion of argumentative form, I drew an enormous graph on the chalkboard — I labeled the x-axis with our constant, “time” or “progression of paragraphs,” and marked the y-axis with the variable, “narrative interest generated” or “argumentative momentum gained.” We used as our test case the five-paragraph essay routinely taught in high schools, which I wanted my students to examine as a vehicle for effectively communicating critical ideas. I asked everyone to work in groups and to chart out the way that that type of essay might look once mapped onto our x– and y-axes. The curves generated amongst various groups bore uncanny resemblances: the highest point plotted for the introduction, which poses the most stimulating questions and offers stunning eye-catching hypotheses, then declines into meandering body paragraphs that merely reiterate the aforementioned claims, and finally rises once more with a conclusion that provocatively expands the discussion to ideas beyond the scope of the paper. All of my students decided this method was less appealing as it yielded a parabolic curve, opening upwards, dipping in the middle, and ending exactly where it began. It was, as they said, too “formulaic” to always be a model of good form. I then had the class track the arc of Catherine Gallagher’s thesis in a wonderful article called “The Rise of Fictionality,” first in terms of content (“What is she arguing?”) and then in terms of form (“How can we chart the way that she builds her argument?”). They collectively agreed that Gallagher employed a strategic exponential curve, beginning with a mesmerizing initial offering, then layering complexities and supporting assertions on with dazzling control.
The Assessment: The effects of this simple interdisciplinary exercise were very much evident in the superb quality of the final ten-page research projects. Interrogating form so closely reminded students to observe not only whether their arguments were taking shape, but exactly what shape they were taking — or, rather, how the formal functions of words, rhymes, typographical details, syntax, and meter could take an analogue in the formal function f(x), as it were. By getting their hands dirty with the messy stuff of form itself, the class stayed awake and started delving into and dwelling in the embedded structural intricacies lying below texts’ previously impenetrable veneers of immediate meaning. During discussions throughout the rest of the semester, for instance, they started to discover that something as small as a repeated phrase in Jane Austen could shed light on how gossip itself circulates in her novels. In so doing, students not only learned something about narrative but began, crucially, to conceive of their own interdisciplinary reading and writing as narrative. Having experienced the impassioned, often obsessive reading that many of the novels we studied thematized, they were then better able to produce the sort of writing that exhibits all the painstaking attention to form that great style always prompts, at any hour of the day.